Hürrem Sultan (Turkish pronunciation: [hyɾˈɾem suɫˈtaːn], Ottoman Turkish: خرم سلطان, Ḫurrem Sulṭān; c. 1502 – 15 April 1558) was the favourite and later the chief consort and legal wife of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She had six children with Süleyman: Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II, Şehzade Bayezid, and Şehzade Cihangir. She was one of the most powerful and influential women in Ottoman history and a prominent and controversial figure during the era known as the Sultanate of Women. She was "Haseki Sultan" (favorite of the Sultan) when her husband, Süleyman I, reigned as the Ottoman sultan. She achieved power and influenced the politics of the Ottoman Empire through her husband and played an active role in state affairs of the Empire.
Hürrem's birth name is unknown. Leslie P. Peirce has written that it may have been either Anastasia, or Alexandra Lisowska. Among the Ottomans, she was known mainly as Haseki Hürrem Sultan or Hürrem Haseki Sultan. Hürrem or Khorram (Persian: خرم) means "the cheerful one" in Persian. "Roxelana" might be not a proper name but a nickname. Until the 15th century, "Roxolany" or "Roxelany" was a name for the Russians, from the ancient Roxolani. Thus her nickname would literally mean "The Ruthenian One".
Sources indicate that Hürrem Sultan was originally from Ruthenia, in present-day Ukraine, which was then part of the Polish Kingdom. She was born in the town of Rohatyn, 68 km south-east of Lwów, a major city of the Ruthenian Voivodeship in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland (today in Western Ukraine). According to late 16th-century and early 17th-century sources, such as the Polish poet Samuel Twardowski (died 1661), who researched the subject in Turkey, Hürrem was seemingly born to a father who was a Russian Orthodox priest.
In the 1520s, Crimean Tatars captured her during one of their frequent raids into Ruthenia. The Tatars may have first taken her to the Crimean city of Kaffa, a major centre of the slave trade, before she was taken to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Hasfa Valide Sultan selected Hürrem as a gift for her son, Sultan Süleyman; Hürrem was to become one of his concubine and later the Haseki Sultan or Sultana consort of the Ottoman imperial harem. Mikhalon Lytvyn, ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crimean khanate, wrote in the 16th century that "the most beloved wife of the present Turkish emperor – mother of his primogenital [son] who will govern after him, was kidnapped from our land".
Relationship with Süleyman
Roxelana, called Hürrem Sultan, probably entered the harem around fifteen years of age. The precise year that she entered the harem is unknown, but scholars believe that she became Süleyman's concubine around the time he became sultan in 1520. Hürrem's unprecedented rise from harem slave to Süleyman's legal wife and "queen of the Ottoman Empire" attracted jealousy and disfavor not only from her rivals in the harem, but also from the general populace. She soon became Süleyman's most prominent consort beside Mahidevran (also known as Gülbahar). While the exact dates for the births of her children are disputed, there is academic consensus that the births of her five children —Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II and Şehzade Bayezid — occurred quickly over the next four to five years. Süleyman and Hürrem's last child, Şehzade Cihangir was born with a hunchback, but by that time Hürrem had borne enough healthy sons to secure the future of the Ottoman dynasty.
Her joyful spirit and playful temperament earned her a new name, Hürrem, from Persian Khorram, "the cheerful one". In the Istanbul harem, Hürrem became a rival to Mahidevran and her influence over the Sultan soon became legendary. Hürrem was allowed to give birth to more than one son which was a stark violation of the old imperial harem principle, "one concubine mother — one son," which was designed to prevent both the mother's influence over the sultan and the feuds of the blood brothers for the throne. She was to bear the majority of Süleyman's children. Hürrem gave birth to her first son Mehmed in 1521 (he died in 1543) and then to four more sons, destroying Mahidevran's status as the mother of the sultan's only son. Süleyman's mother, Hafsa, partially suppressed the rivalry between the two women. As a result of the bitter rivalry a fight between the two women broke out, with Mahidevran beating Hürrem, which angered Süleyman.
In 1533 or 1534 (the exact date is unknown), Süleyman married Hürrem in a magnificent formal ceremony, making him the first Ottoman Sultan to wed since Orhan Ghazi (reign 1326–1362), and violating a 200-year-old custom of the Ottoman imperial house according to which sultans were not to marry their concubines. Never before was a former slave elevated to the status of the sultan's lawful spouse, much to the astonishment of observers in the palace and in the city. Hürrem also received the title Haseki Sultan and became the first consort to hold this title. This title, used for a century, reflected the great power of imperial consorts (most of them were former slaves) in the Ottoman court, elevating their status higher than Ottoman princesses, and making them the equals of empresses consort in Europe. In this case, Süleyman not only broke the old custom, but created new tradition for the future Ottoman Sultans to marry with a formal ceremony and make their consorts have significant influence on the court, especially in matter of succession. Hürrem's salary was 2,000 aspers a day, making her one of the highest paid hasekis. Their marriage had subsequent consequences including creating a general belief that by this marriage the Sultan had limited his autonomy and was dominated and controlled by his wife. Furthermore, a mother's role in educating and guiding her sons throughout their life became more prominent.
Later, Hürrem became the first woman to remain in the Sultan's court for the duration of her life. In the Ottoman imperial family tradition, a sultan's consort was to remain in the harem only until her son came of age (around 16 or 17), after which he would be sent away from the capital to govern a faraway province, and his mother would follow him. This tradition was called Sanjak Beyliği. The consorts were never to return to Istanbul unless their sons succeeded to the throne. In defiance of this age-old custom, Hürrem stayed behind in the harem with her hunchback son Cihangir, even after her three other sons went to govern the empire's remote provinces.
Moreover, in addition to remaining in Istanbul, she also moved out of the harem located in the Old Palace (Eski Saray) and permanently moved into the Topkapı Palace after a fire destroyed the old harem. Some sources say she moved to Topkapı, not because of the fire, but as a result of her marriage to Süleyman. Either way, this was another significant break from established customs, as Fatih Sultan Mehmed had specifically issued a decree to the effect that no women would be allowed to reside in the same building where government affairs were conducted. After Hürrem resided at Topkapı it became known as the New Palace (saray-ı jedid).
Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Sultan Süleyman composed this poem for Hürrem Sultan:
"Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world...
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief...
I'll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy."
Hürrem became Süleyman's partner not only in the Sultan's household, but also in state affairs. Thanks to her intelligence, she acted as Süleyman's chief adviser on matters of state, and seems to have had an influence upon foreign policy and international politics. She frequently accompanied him as a political adviser. Hürrem's influence on Süleyman was so significant that rumors circulated around the Ottoman court that the sultan had been bewitched.
Her influence with Süleyman made her one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history and in the world at that time. Even as a consort, her power was comparable with the most powerful woman of the Imperial Harem, who by tradition was the Sultan's mother or valide sultan. For this reason, she has become a controversial figure in Ottoman history — subject to allegations of plotting against and manipulating her political rivals.
Hürrem's influence in state affairs not only made her one of the most influential women, but also a controversial figure in Ottoman history, especially in her rivalry with Mahidevran and her son Mustafa, Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, and Kara Ahmed Pasha.
Hürrem and Mahidevran had borne Süleyman six şehzades (Ottoman princes), four of whom survived past the 1550s: Mustafa, Selim, Bayezid, and Cihangir. Of these, Mahidevran's son Mustafa was the eldest and preceded Hürrem's children in the order of succession. Traditionally, when a new sultan rose to power, all of his brothers were killed in order to ensure the stability of the empire. This practice is called kardeş katliamı.
Mustafa was supported by Ibrahim Pasha, who became Süleyman's Grand Vizier in 1523. Hürrem has usually been held at least partly responsible for the intrigues in nominating a successor. Although she was Süleyman's wife, she exercised no official public role. This did not, however, prevent Hürrem from wielding powerful political influence. Since the empire lacked, until the reign of Ahmed I (1603–1617), any formal means of nominating a successor, successions usually involved the death of competing princes in order to avert civil unrest and rebellions. In attempting to avoid the execution of her sons, Hürrem used her influence to eliminate those who supported Mustafa's accession to the throne.
A skilled commander of Süleyman's army, Ibrahim eventually fell from grace after an imprudence committed during a campaign against the Persian Safavid empire during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1532–55), when he awarded himself a title including the word "Sultan". Another conflict occurred when Ibrahim and his former mentor, İskender Çelebi, repeatedly clashed over military leadership and positions during the Safavid war. These incidents launched a series of events which culminated in his execution in 1536 by Süleyman's order. It is believed that Hürrem's influence contributed to Süleyman's decision. After three other grand viziers in eight years, Süleyman selected Hürrem's son-in-law, Damat Rüstem Pasha, husband of Mihrimah, to become the grand vizier. Scholars have wondered if Hürrem's alliance with Mihrimah Sultan and Rüstem Pasha helped secure the throne for one of Hürrem's sons.
Many years later, towards the end of Süleyman's long reign, the rivalry between his sons became evident. It is believed that both Hürrem and the grand vizier Rüstem helped turn Süleyman against Mustafa and Mustafa was accused of causing unrest. During the campaign against Safavid Persia in 1553, because of fear of rebellion, Süleyman ordered the execution of Mustafa. According to a source he was executed that very year on charges of planning to dethrone his father; his guilt for the treason of which he was accused remains neither proven nor disproven. After the death of Mustafa, Mahidevran lost her status in the palace (as the mother of the heir apparent) and moved to Bursa. She did not spend her last years in poverty, as her stepson, Selim II, the new sultan after 1566, put her on a lavish salary. Her rehabilitation have been possible after the death of Hürrem in 1558. Cihangir, Hürrem's youngest child, allegedly died of grief a few months after the news of his half-brother's murder.
Süleyman dismissed Rüstem and appointed Kara Ahmed as his grand vizier in October 1553. But almost two years later, Kara Ahmed was strangled by Süleyman's order in September 1555. It is said that the execution was due to political manoeuvrings of Hürrem, who wanted Rüstem to become the grand vizier again. After death of Kara Ahmed, Rüstem Pasha became the grand vizier (1555–1561) once more.
Although the stories about Hürrem's role in executions of Ibrahim, Mustafa, and Kara Ahmed are very popular, actually all of them are not based on first-hand sources. All other depictions of Hürrem, starting with comments by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ottoman historians as well as by European diplomats, observers, and travellers, are highly derivative and speculative in nature. Because none of these people - neither Ottomans nor foreign visitors - were permitted into the inner circle of the imperial harem, which was surrounded by multiple walls, they largely relied on the testimony of the servants or courtiers or on the popular gossip circulating around Istanbul. Even the reports of the Venetian ambassadors (baili) at Süleyman's court, the most extensive and objective first-hand Western source on Hürrem to date, were often filled with the authors’ own interpretations of the harem rumours. Most other sixteenth-century Western sources on Hürrem, which are considered highly authoritative today — such as Turcicae epistolae (English: The Turkish Letters) of Ogier de Busbecq, the Emissary of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I at the Porte between 1554 and 1562; the account of the murder of Şehzade Mustafa by Nicholas de Moffan; the historical chronicles on Turkey by Paolo Giovio; and the travel narrative by Luidgi Bassano — derived from hearsay.
Hürrem acted as Süleyman's advisor on matters of state, and seems to have had an influence upon foreign policy and on international politics. Two of her letters to King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland (reigned 1548–1572) have survived, and during her lifetime the Ottoman Empire generally had peaceful relations with the Polish state within a Polish–Ottoman alliance.
In her first short letter to Sigismund II, Hürrem expresses her highest joy and congratulations to the new king on the occasion of his ascension to the Polish throne after the death of his father Sigismund I in 1548. She also pleads with the King to trust her envoy Hassan Ağa (her close servant who was by some accounts a convert to Islam of Russian descent) who took another message from her by word of mouth. In her second letter to Sigismund August, written in response to his letter, Hürrem expresses in superlative terms her joy at hearing that the king is in good health and that he sends assurances of his sincere friendliness and attachment towards Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She also quotes the sultan as saying, "with the old king we were like brothers, and if it pleases the All-Merciful God, with this king we will be as father and son." With this letter, Hürrem sent Sigismund II the gift of two pairs of linen shirts and pants, some belts, six handkerchiefs, and a hand-towel, with a promise to send a special linen robe in the future.
There are reasons to believe that these two letters were more than just diplomatic gestures, and that Süleyman's references to brotherly or fatherly feelings were not a mere tribute to political expediency. The letters also suggest Hürrem's strong desire to establish personal contact with the king. "Perhaps," writes one Ukrainian author, "they express her concern about her land, which was under Polish Kings, and her desire to help it out in any possible way?" In his 1551 letter to Sigismund II concerning the embassy of Piotr Opalinski, Süleyman wrote that the Ambassador had seen "Your sister and my wife." Whether this phrase refers to a warm friendship between the Polish King and Ottoman Haseki, or whether it suggests a closer relation, the degree of their intimacy definitely points to a special link between the two states at the time.
Aside from her political concerns, Hürrem engaged in several major works of public buildings, from Mecca to Jerusalem, perhaps modelling her charitable foundations in part after the caliph Harun al-Rashid's consort Zubaida. Among her first foundations were a mosque, two Koranic schools (madrassa), a fountain, and a women's hospital near the women's slave market (Avret Pazary) in Istanbul (Haseki Sultan Complex). It was the first complex constructed in Istanbul by Mimar Sinan in his new position as the chief imperial architect. The fact that it was the third largest building in the capital, after the complexes of Mehmed II (Fatih) and Süleyman (Süleymaniye mosque), testifies to Hurrem's great status. She also built mosque complexes in Adrianopole and Ankara.
She commissioned a bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, to serve the community of worshippers in the nearby Hagia Sophia. In Jerusalem she established in 1552 the Haseki Sultan Imaret, a public soup kitchen to feed the poor and the needy. This soup kitchen was said to have fed at least 500 people twice a day. She also built Imaret Haseki Hürrem, public soup kitchen in Mecca.
Some of her embroidery, or at least that done under her supervision, has also survived, examples being given in 1547 to Tahmasp I, the Shah of Iran, and in 1549 to King Sigismund II Augustus.
Esther Handali acted as her secretary and intermediary on several occasions.
Hürrem died on 15 April 1558 and was buried in a domed mausoleum (türbe) decorated in exquisite Iznik tiles depicting the garden of paradise, perhaps in homage to her smiling and joyful nature. Her mausoleum is adjacent to Süleyman's, a separate and more sombre domed structure, at the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque.
Hürrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, is well-known both in modern Turkey and in the West, and is the subject of many artistic works. In 1561, three years after Hürrem's death, the French author Gabriel Bounin wrote a tragedy titled La Soltane about the role of Hürrem Sultan in Mustafa's death. This tragedy marks the first time the Ottomans were introduced on stage in France. She has inspired paintings, musical works (including Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 63), an opera by Denys Sichynsky, a ballet, plays, and several novels written mainly in Russian and Ukrainian, but also in English, French, and German.
In early modern Spain, she appears or is alluded to in works by Quevedo and other writers as well as in a number of plays by Lope de Vega. In a play entitled The Holy League, Titian appears on stage at the Venetian Senate, and stating that he has just come from visiting the Sultan, displays his painting of Sultana Rossa or Roxelana.
In 2007, Muslims in Mariupol, a port city since 1922 in Ukraine (previously in Russia) opened a mosque to honour Roxelana.
In the 2003 TV miniseries, Hürrem Sultan, she was played by Turkish actress and singer Gülben Ergen. In the 2011–2014 TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Hürrem Sultan is portrayed by Turkish-German actress Meryem Uzerli from season one to season three and at the series' last season she is portrayed by Turkish actress Vahide Perçin.
With Süleyman, she had five sons and one daughter.
- Mehmed (c. 1521 – 6 November 1543): Hürrem's first son. Born in 1521 at Istanbul. Mehmed became the ruler of Manisa from 1541 until his death.
- Mihrimah (21 March 1522 – 25 January 1578): Hürrem's only daughter. She was married to Rüstem, later Ottoman Grand Vizier, on 26 November 1539.
- Abdullah (1522 – 1525)
- Selim (28 May 1524 – 12/15 December 1574): He was governor of Manisa after Mehmed's death and later governor of Konya. He ascended to the throne on 7 September 1566 as Selim II.
- Bayezid (1525 – 25 September 1561): He was governor of Kütahya and later Amasya.
- Cihangir (9 December 1531 – 27 November 1553)